Oceania: Imagining the Pacific & Early Encounters

Oceania: Early Encounters
Oceania: Imagining the Pacific
6th August-6th November 2011
Te Papa & City Gallery Wellington

Due to its two venues, one of the largest exhibitions staged in Wellington, but possibly not the most ambitious. It fills the entire City Gallery and the Visa Platinum Gallery at Te Papa, and has ‘Edify World Cup Tourist Masses’ written all over it. This works well for the City Gallery, but not for Te Papa. Let me explain why. Oh, go on. Go on, go on, go on.

Imagining the Pacific, the City Gallery exhibition, is a pleasing Greatest Hits collection of NZ art. Obviously, there’s rather a lot of blue paint. I’ve just grabbed my copy of Forty Modern New Zealand Paintings by Francis Pound (published in 1985, so not that modern anymore) and immediately I can see six artists they have in common – in fact, Len Lye’s Polynesian Connection is also on display. There’s no huge surprises here, but it doesn’t matter because the stuff is really, really good.

The Hirschfeld Gallery features work in an impressive variety of media by Robin White (I’m still trying to work out how she made her fine duotone woodcuts), and the Deane Gallery has large-format photographs by Greg Semu, commissioned by Paris’s Museé du Quai Branly (of course)  in response to a particularly egregious All Blacks ad campaign.

Te Papa’s Early Encounters exhibition has some magnificent objects in it, but it suffers from compartmentalization – that is to say, five large colour-coded boxes containing the exhibits arranged around the gallery with rather a lot of wasted space between them. The lighting is horrible. I thought this was to preserve some of the more fragile artifacts, but apparently it’s mainly for atmosphere. When I was there one of the spotlights had blown, making it impossible to read a large text caption – I was literally in the dark.

Ironically the objects I was most impressed by were both European – an enormous printing press which looks as though it was made by Weta Workshops (used to print bibles in Maori, but baroque enough to put the fear of God into you through its very presence) and a book of pressed ferns with an intricate cover of inlaid wood.

At both venues I asked if they’d seen much traffic from the World Cup. A lot of effort went into publicizing the exhibitions (check out the dedicated website). Anecdotally, very few RWC tourists bothered to visit. Possibly because the ultimate lesson of Early Encounters is that “tourists are homicidal maniacs”.

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